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Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I am delighted to take part in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway).

There is genuine cross-party support for the Bill, and that has been reflected in my constituency and, I am sure, in the constituencies of all other hon. Members. On the publication of the draft Bill, I consulted those of my constituents who had an interest in animal welfare issues, and asked for their opinions on the Bill. I am pleased to say that the majority of those people expressed their support for the measure. In line with many of the opinions that have been expressed in the debate so far, they had certain reservations and certain concerns, one of which was the issue of performing animals in circuses. I have questions about animal sanctuaries.

A number of the constituents to whom I spoke accept that there will be increases in penalties and punishments. A significant number of them—probably about half of those who expressed an opinion to me—wanted tougher penalties. They wanted prison sentences to be longer. They wanted fines to be higher and they wanted tougher disqualification from owning animals in future.

This relates to an issue raised earlier on the penalties issue, which concerns custody plus. The penalty of imprisonment could be reduced to about 13 weeks without custody plus. I understand that that is less than under current sentencing arrangements. We must consider this issue. My constituents are saying that the penalties should be greater, so that if we have custody plus people will be put away for what they consider to be a reasonable time.

I shall now discuss performing animals in circuses. My constituents have strong opinions on this issue. I found that 95 per cent. of people felt that the use of wild animals in circuses should be banned. Like other hon. Members, I share that view. Many years ago I served as
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a councillor on the same council as the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). It introduced one of the first bans in Britain on performing circuses on council land, and many local authorities followed suit by refusing to allow circuses to perform on council-owned land. The issue has therefore received strong support up and down the country for many years. MORI opinion polls consistently show that over 60 per cent. of people in Britain would like to ban performing animals in circuses.

Mr. Gray: Does that include the use of horses as performing animals in circuses?

Shona McIsaac: Certainly, my constituents would wish to include them, given the way in which they can be trained. They have expressed concern about that, and I shall come to the issue of horses in circuses in a short while.

Last year, I took part in a peaceful protest against the use of wild animals in circuses when a circus visited Laceby in my constituency. Interestingly, it arrived on the 14th anniversary of the night on which four lions escaped from Chipperfield's circus on a nearby site in Grimsby, mauling a man and terrorising many local residents. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), who is from the area, probably remembers the incident in which lions marauded through Grimsby. They were subsequently caught. When I took part in that protest, many people who visited the circus were not interested in the animals—they were more interested in the acrobatic displays. However, after the show they were deeply concerned about what they had seen. One of my constituents was reported in my local newspaper, the Grimsby Telegraph, as saying:

A large body of evidence collected by the Born Free Foundation, Animal Defenders International, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and others shows that a circus environment cannot provide for the needs of such animals. The transportation required and housing arrangements constrain their natural behaviour. The Secretary of State and other hon. Members have said that we were one of the first countries to introduce legislation to protect animals. However, we shall not be the first to introduce legislation to ban performing animals in circuses, because other countries have already done so. If they can do so, the majority of my constituents and I do not see why Britain cannot do so as well.

Briefly, on the subject of animal sanctuaries, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss   Widdecombe) said that people can speak for themselves, but that animals cannot. There is, however, a breed of person who cannot speak for themselves in the Chamber—my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), who is a Whip. I shall be his voice tonight. I was a sponsor of the Animal Sanctuaries (Licensing) Bill, which he introduced in 2001. It would have provided for the licensing and inspection of animal sanctuaries, but he withdrew it when the Government made it clear that the issue would be addressed in the
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Animal Welfare Bill. I certainly welcome that, but I have a number of concerns. While the draft Bill proposed the licensing of larger sanctuaries and the registration of smaller ones, the Bill before us today no longer includes the licensing requirement. Instead, it proposes that sanctuaries should register with the local authority for a five-year period. Animal welfare organisations and I are concerned about that, as such a period between inspections may not be appropriate.

We must undertake work to define sanctuaries, and the new regulations must be put in place urgently.

The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup mentioned problems in defining sanctuaries. What on earth is a sanctuary? If someone takes in a few cats because they like cats and they think that those cats are not being treated properly, are they running a sanctuary? We therefore need to clarify those definitions, and we also need a proper licensing system for sanctuaries. As I said when I intervened on the Secretary of State, the duty of care in the Bill will put more pressure on animal sanctuaries in future, so we should not leave that secondary legislation until a later date. We need to address the issue at an early stage, so that animals that have suffered from cruelty and have been taken into sanctuaries receive proper protection. The sanctuary sector is unregulated, so we should act speedily. Overall the Bill is welcome, and I support it, but I hope that the Government will take into account my concerns about circuses and sanctuaries.

6.6 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) follows a long succession of speakers in our debate, including her hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who have taken a reasoned, sensible and well-informed approach to an often controversial and difficult subject. I very much welcome the tone of the debate. I entirely agree with most contributors, as I wholly support the principle underlying this excellent Bill, which has been a long time coming. I very much support the consultation and the debates that preceded it, as well as the work of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on the draft Bill and so on. I shall return to that when I speak about the regulations.

It is easy for hon. Members to express heartfelt sentiments on the subject of animals. Our mailbags attest to the fact that our constituents have extremely strong feelings about the way in which we treat our animals. It is easy for us to stand up in the Chamber and express sugary, schmaltzy sentiments about the importance of animals to us. My goodness, that is true—there is no greater animal lover than I. However, we are not merely expressing wonderful sentiments about those animals; we are discussing the means by which we should protect them. After all, the English are the greatest animal lovers in the world, and we have some of the best law already in place. We want to make sure that we do not introduce law that does not work, is bad law, or which makes the lot of the animals that we are seeking to protect worse. Merely saying that we are concerned about those animals and must do something about the problem is not necessarily the right approach to legislation. In particular, there is confusion at the
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heart of this afternoon's debate. Most contributors—the hon. Member for Cleethorpes was typical in this respect—expressed strong views on subjects such as circuses, tail docking and animal sanctuaries. Many of us hold strong views about those issues, and most hon. Members and people across the nation would agree that it is probably not right to keep lions and tigers in a circus, because it is an entirely unnatural environment for them. However, we should think carefully about the subject of horses in circuses, as performing horses may well perform naturally and enjoy what they are doing. That is a matter for debate but, broadly speaking, we agree about the issues.

The Bill, however, does not deal with those issues, and that is the fundamental flaw of our debate. The Government are seeking to put in place the biggest Henry VIII measure that I have ever encountered. In it, they say that they do not have a particular view about tail docking. They know that it is controversial, and that some people, including myself, think that prophylactic docking is a good thing for working dogs but cosmetic docking may not be appropriate for other dogs. They know that that is what some people think, and that there are strong views on both sides of the argument. However, apart from giving hints in the documents that accompany the Bill, the Government say that they do not have a view. They have said that they are not entirely happy about animal sanctuaries although they do not intend to say anything about that during today's debate, but will put in place a mechanism by which to return to such issues later.

Both sides of those controversial arguments dislike that situation. Those of us who believe in prophylactic tail docking would like to see the Government's hints on the subject much more clearly spelled out. Those who are totally opposed to it—we have heard from many of them this afternoon—would equally say that the Bill should clearly specify what will happen when it becomes an Act. The Government seem to be seeking to kick many of these difficult, controversial and awkward issues and details into the long grass, and I do not accept that that is necessarily a good thing.

In that context, while welcoming all the consultation and discussion that we have had on the Bill in general during the last three or four years, I should like to be certain that when we come to a complex and difficult technical issue, such as whether to use horses in circuses or whether livery yards should be subject to the same regulation as riding schools, we have the same degree of consultation and discussion on each as we have had on the main Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr.   Ainsworth) made the extremely powerful point that our procedures for the consideration of statutory instruments are weak. They are considered for one and a half hours in Committee where Government Members do not speak, where no amendment is possible and where the measure is either passed or not, but because of the whipping system is extremely likely to be passed. Not once during many years has the House of Lords overturned such a measure, so if controversial or wrong measures were put through, the other place would not be able to correct them. That is an unsatisfactory mechanism for the consideration of matters that are technical, difficult and need to be considered carefully.
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We have reached 2006 allowing tail docking and other animal practices because some people believe them to be good. Perhaps some hon. Members right now do not, but others do, and those matters should be considered carefully, not on the basis of sentiment or political pressure. We could not have a situation where the Secretary of State was under terrible pressure from his Back Benchers and so agreed to ban lions and tigers from circuses, or safari parks, which might be next, or zoos—or the many other things that could be banned, bowing to political pressure, sentimentality or anthropomorphism, doing something that he would not otherwise do and which might not necessarily be to the benefit of the animals themselves. I therefore have some concerns about the Bill's structure. It would be better if the Government could find a way of putting more on the face of the Bill.

A number of detailed and specific matters have not necessarily been thought through as carefully as they might. For example, there is the question of the ownership of animals. Under the law at the moment, the farmer owns a wild animal until such time as it has grown up, so baby foxes, badgers or deer on a farmer's land are owned by the farmer. As I read the Bill, the farmer would have a duty of care for such small animals until such time as they are grown up. The Minister shakes his head, but if he examines the Bill, I think that he will find that I am right. We need to refer to substantive ownership, rather than effective ownership.

The use of snares and live trapping have been mentioned. A magpie caught in a magpie box perfectly humanely would be in the ownership of the person who set up that box. Under the Bill, to what degree does that person have a duty of care to the magpie? Is shooting it sufficient, or do they have to look after it in some other way? The whole question of ownership needs to be examined carefully.

We have talked about mutilation in a variety of ways, and there are arguments on both sides of the case, although now may not be the time to air them all, but let us take it one stage further. It is extremely common practice in farming. For example, all sheep and pig tails are docked. It is considered to be good practice under the law. My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), who for many years served as chief executive of the Cats Protection League, talked about docking, but virtually every dog and cat in the country is neutered. Is castration of a dog necessarily any worse than cutting off its tail? That could well be the position that we are moving towards. Mutilation is therefore not something to be talked about in light-hearted terms. One should consider carefully why it might be that gun dogs or other working dogs, such as terriers working underground—that is still allowed under legislation introduced last year—should be allowed to have their tails docked.

None of us supports animal fighting. That is one of the most vicious things and I welcome the Bill's clarification of the fact that that can no longer happen. But we need to be certain that the perfectly legitimate use of animals against other animals—particularly the use of terriers against rats and mice, which was acknowledged in a debate last year to be a perfectly acceptable use of a dog against another animal—is not inadvertently misunderstood.
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It is important that we do not allow dogs, cats or other animals to be abandoned. I am a strong supporter of the important principle that dogs should be for life, not just for Christmas. But what about animals that are released back into the wild? A number of animal welfare organisations catch foxes in towns and release them in the countryside. Would they have care for those foxes? What about those people who are illegally shifting badgers, trying to disrupt the Krebs process? To what degree do they come under the Bill? What about the release of wild animals back into the wild? We all loved the films about Keiko the whale and Elsa the lioness who were released back into the wild. There are a variety of ways in which animals are released back into the wild.

We need to think carefully about the issue of abandonment and precisely what that means. There is a particular problem with regard to horses. The International League for the Protection of Horses, an outstandingly good organisation, has raised with me the fact that, because of a number of changes in horse legislation recently, there may be an increased tendency towards the abandonment of horses. The precise way in which the regulations affect that disgraceful practice must be looked at extremely carefully.

Those and a number of other areas are inadequately addressed in the Bill, which has been structured in such a way that almost no one could object to it on principle. As has been said, most of its measures are demonstrable goods, but inside the fine print there is a significant risk that the end result for many types of animals would be significantly worse than it is today.

The Government should not take part in legislative idleness. They should be ready to address these difficult issues of circuses, animal welfare, animal sanctuaries and docking. They are difficult, complex and technical matters that the Government should be ready to address in debate, not kick into the long grass and leave to a Statutory Instrument Committee at some dim and distant date in the future. From the point of view of those who believe that some practices should be allowed in order to protect animals, and from the point of view of those who believe strongly that those practices should be outlawed, we should take the opportunity of this Bill today and in the months that lie ahead to address those issues for real, not merely to hide behind the fact that at some stage in the future we may or may not introduce regulations to deal with them.

I have a fundamental difficulty with the Bill's structure. The Government should address the issues up front and be much bolder in their approach. I hope that in Committee and on Report they will be ready to do just that.

6.18 pm

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